Imagine my surprise, sitting in my local art cinema watching coming attraction trailers, when I saw the name Larry Mullen Jr., co-starring in ‘Man on the Train,’ a remake of Patrice Leconte’s 2002 French film, playing the role that earned that country’s pop star Johnny Hallyday critical respect as an actor.
And yes, it’s that Larry Mullen, Jr., who plays drums for world-renowned rock band U2, taking a busman’s holiday to produce the film with director Mary McGuckian, who insisted he must take the role. Mullen plays a sullen drifter who shows up in a small U.S. town one day like the “Man With No Name” in a Clint Eastwood western, ostensibly to rob a bank, though he ends up forging an identity-swapping friendship with a retired poetry professor played by Donald Sutherland, in an award-worthy performance of his own.
“I had fanciful ideas about things I’d like to do in my spare time,” says Mullen. “One of them was a helicopter pilot, another was free-fall parachuting, and the other was acting. I had become accustomed to being in the background. I never wanted to be the lead singer or guitar player. I had made a decision about where I enjoyed being, and that was relegated to the back. So, I decided, what could I do that would push the boat out from me, and make me feel really uncomfortable, but be incredibly challenging. And acting was the answer.”
In playing this distant, mysterious character whose motives remain uncertain, Mullen used his discomfort and inexperience as an actor to his advantage, as well as his sense of rhythm and pacing.
“There’s no doubt, as far as a role is concerned, it couldn’t have been better for me,” he says. “The original part was also played by a pop star. That was the whole reason for doing this film. When Mary got the rights, we went into partnership for the production. The idea was for me to play a cameo, but she insisted I had to do it.”
Mullen admits, if he’d known Sutherland would be joining the cast, he might not have been so amenable to the idea.
“Since I wasn’t a trained actor, I had no idea what it would be like to act in front of somebody like him,” he says. “Within 10 minutes of meeting him, I felt like I had maybe bitten off more than I could chew. But he was very generous in the way he didn’t offer me advice. He absolutely stayed out of my way, and gave me enough rope. And I mean that in a good way. He was saying, if you’re going to do this, do it. You’re on your own. I’m not going to be your fall guy. He didn’t actually say that, but I imagined he would’ve said that if he could have. It was more like, go for it. For the 17 days I was there, I was very unsure of what I was doing. We had a good relationship on and off the set. And very occasionally, he would turn around to me and say, ‘You’re doing good.’”
Mullen points out the two men’s relationship—with each envying the other’s strong points, the man of action vs. the man of contemplation—is a very European thing.
“It is deeply un-American to invite somebody back to your house unless you have some ulterior motive,” says the drummer about the movie’s homoerotic implications. “And that’s kind of the beauty of it because it’s kind of at odds with what people think now. But it has nothing to do with a gay come-on. It’s essentially a buddy movie, about two men who grow to like and care about each other. And I think that’s kind of liberating in a funny way.
“In French cinema, a slow-burning movie like this is an art form. In American movie-making it’s all about how many punctuation marks you can have. This movie’s not about that. It’s not for everybody. You have to be interested in filmmaking and the characters to enjoy this film.”
Mullen also recommends ‘Man on the Train’ to “anyone interested in great acting… It’s one of Donald Sutherland’s finest roles in a long time, his first lead in a while. He does everything that could be expected of a great actor. And it was thrilling to see that. In my mind, he’s one of the greatest, most underrated actors of all time. There’s no question in my mind he deserves Oscar consideration.”
As far as his day job goes, Mullen says Bono and the rest of the U2 gang are taking a well-deserved break from what has been almost two years of recording and touring on the just-completed 360 tour.
“There’s a lot of stuff to catch up on,” he says. “We’ll get together next year and then decide what we’re going to do.”